Towson University releases crime reports, some incidents in past years undercounted

Towson University released last week its annual report of crime on campus showing a rise in stalking incidents and revised its three previous reports to indicate that some crimes, including sexual assault and dating violence, had been undercounted.

The 2017 Clery Act report, a legally required document, was released just before the Oct. 1 deadline. While most crime categories in the report held steady, stalking incidents saw the most dramatic rise — from five reports in 2016 to 25 in 2017.

At the same time, a statement on the university website said, “In the collection and verification of the 2017 reports by our Campus Security Authorities (CSAs), the Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity (OIIE) identified inconsistencies between the number of crimes and incidents that TU recorded and the Clery reported crime statistics for 2014, 2015 and 2016.”

The university removed the previous reports for 2014, 2015 and 2016 and posted revised versions.

According to the revised reports, sexual assaults and dating violence between 2014 and 2016 were slightly higher than previously reported.

In 2015, for instance, the university initially said it received seven reports of rape or forced fondling. That number has been revised to 12 incidents. The 2016 count was revised from seven to 11.

Dating violence numbers jumped even higher in the revisions — from three to 12 reports in 2014, and from two reports to seven in 2016.

Aggravated assault numbers were revised in 2014 from five to eight.

Drug arrest and referral numbers plummeted in the revised reports – for instance, disciplinary referrals in 2016 dropped from 97 in the original version to zero in the revised version. University spokesman Sean Welsh said that drop was because possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense in Maryland and is not reported under the Clery Act.

Leah Cox, vice president for inclusion and institutional equity and Title IX coordinator, said her office regularly reviews the incidents its employees handle and compares them to the university police department’s statistics. This year, they found the discrepancies and informed the university police department, she said.

Welsh said the errors came from discrepancies between departments that receive sexual assault reports, like the Title IX office, which reports incidents to the police.

"The differences in data occurred due to a lack of coordination in the collection of data, and not a failure to address or respond to incidents,” the Towson University website says.

“We were responding to every report,” Cox said.

Revised reports

Laura Egan, senior director of programs at the Clery Center in Strafford, Penn., a nonprofit that educates college campuses about their reporting under the Clery Act, said it is not uncommon for campuses to notice mistakes in their data.

“The best thing we can see is campuses taking the initiative to determine that and to note that on their own, and not as a result of a compliance review,” Egan said.

Campuses are required to reissue revised reports and explain to communities why they are being reissued, as well as resubmit their data to the U.S. Department of Education, Egan said, saying colleges should be “making an effort to note why there’s a discrepancy and correcting it on a systemic level.”

Welsh said the university sent an email to students letting them know of the revisions.

Campus crime in 2017

Most crimes on campus remained relatively consistent in 2017, including sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault. Burglary dropped from eight incidents in 2016 to a single incident in 2017.

Reports of crimes under the Violence Against Women Act, however, climbed. The school received 13 reports of dating violence, six more than the year before.

Egan, at the Clery Center, said there has been an uptick in sexual assault reports over the past five to six years – not because of a rise in crimes, but instead because of “increased attention to gender-based violence.”

“There’s definitely an increased social awareness of what sexual harassment and assault are,” Egan said.

Cox said the university’s Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity has made sexual assault prevention education a focus since her office was created by university President Kim Schatzel in 2017.

The office has a staff of Title IX investigators, a sexual violence educator and requires incoming students to complete both online and in-person trainings about sexual assault.

“Students are now more aware of where to go, what to do, who’s going to respond to them and how to report,” Cox said.

That educational initiative, Cox said, could be the reason that with nearly three months left in 2018, initial reports of sexual assaults at Towson University appear to be far higher than previous years.

The university has received 19 reports of sexual assaults on campus since the start of 2018 according to online crime logs, up from nine in 2017.

Of the reports this year, all but two investigations have been suspended – defined by Welsh as when investigators conclude there are “no more avenues to investigate.” Welsh said police also list cases as “suspended” when they fall out of the university police department’s jurisdiction, for instance, when a student reports an assault that happened off campus.

Two cases in 2018 were “cleared by exception,” which Welsh said happens when law enforcement has enough evidence to make an arrest and charge a defendant but is unable to do so because of “a circumstance outside the control of law enforcement.”

According to county police, rape reports have risen by more than 50 percent in the Towson Precinct as a whole this year. In the first half of 2018, 23 rapes were reported, up from 15 a year earlier.

Cox said the rise in reports may not be a bad thing – in fact, she said, it is a good sign.

“Most often, victims don’t come forward,” Cox said. “For them to feel comfortable enough to come into this office and say ‘I want something done’ – that’s a good thing.”

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